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Life Within Death – Nirai by Manabu Someya


You shall go on a beautiful boat.”

— Farewell to the dead on Yoron Island (Amami Islands, Japan)

Put simply, a photograph reproduces what has been in front of the camera at the time of exposure, a moment in time, a selected fraction of reality. More philosophically, it also records what went on behind the camera in the photographer’s consciousness when the image was taken. These notions are now widely known and accepted.

When looking at Manabu Someya’s photographs in his book Nirai, I was instantly strongly attracted to them. My problem was to understand as to why this was the case and to write a review on them. The challenge was two-fold: not only did the above theory not seem to apply so I could find an entry-point for analysis. I also could not find the words to write about them in an appropriate manner commensurate with what I was seeing in front of me in the book.

On parts of the Sulawesi island of Indonesia, when a newborn baby dies, the body is laid inside a hole carved into a large tree, which contains a white sap like that of mother’s milk. This is to prevent the baby from ever feeling hungry. In time, the hole in the tree closes, but it is believed that the leaves that grow on the tree allow the baby’s spirit to reincarnate into a new life.

–Manabu Someya in the afterword

Reading the accompanying afterword, it became clear that the overarching theme of the work was that of life and death. Of course, this could be said for a lot of photographs we see, so what is different here? Someya has chosen tropical regions of Asia as a geographic foundation of his work. Since there are no captions with the images, we only later realise that we have seen Taiwan, Indonesia, The Philippines and Okinawa, but visually they are so well connected that any captions would have only been distracting. I have struggled to find some adjectives that would describe the work, and whatever I think of does not seem entirely adequate so the reader should not put too much weight on them. One word is “lush”, even though that is certainly not what the photographs are meant to show primarily. The exquisitely warm and brownish color palette, signs of earth and vegetation set an important fundamental tone. We are in a hot and painfully humid place here, a place that lets us move only slowly and longing for rest in the shade of a forest, surely with the expected amount of various exotic insects that would soon settle on us.

In such a climate, Life is certain to thrive. Vegetation grows quickly, trees and bushes carry rich fruit that unless harvested become the basis for more life. It is this thought that for the first time brings us nearer to life and death.

The thought of falling ill or being injured is always unpleasant, but one of my greatest personal fears is to fall ill or be wounded in a relentlessly hot and humid place, naturally without the luxury of an air-conditioned room. I remember (with quite some disgust) a documentary film by Werner Herzog, tracing the path of a sole survivor of a plane crash in a south American jungle (Wings of Hope — Ed.). The person was injured, flies and other insects promptly using the wound as breeding ground. It was promptly populated by a vast amount of maggots, which was illustrated by showing a horse with the same condition. Life is always battling with death — for more life.

You don’t need to get too philosophical to realise how inseperable the two are. What is notable is how Someya somehow seems to be able to approach such a grand theme with saying so little. I believe the key is that what is happening in front or behind the camera is really not relevant. We are finding ourselves truly immersed, not just in a visual sense, but on a very emotional level.

Nirai Kanai — a world that exists beyond the ocean”

The parts of Asia we are being taken to are not just physical locations, they are a state of mind and a way of being. Humans, obviously part of nature and the great game of life, are prominently featured by means of various portraits. We understand that they also battle with death for the own lives in an environment that is so fertile and yet demanding so much from life forms inhabiting it.

The term Nirai Kanai refers to what the people of the islands of Ryukyu around Okinawa believe as a “world that exists beyond the ocean”, an otherworld that brings happiness and fertility, but also bad and evil. It is also a place where the spirits of the dead will go to when the time has come.

I aimed to visualise Nirai Kanai as a place existing in this world where we live now. This idea derived from my feeling that our lives are much too vulnerable in the state we are in today. Thus, the world of death is often perceived as being close by us, making us feel as if our spirits are ceaselessly crossing the ocean as we live our repetitive daily lives.

Nirai is a soothingly thoughtful and, within the right frame of mind, emotionally greatly accessible if not intense photo book. I very much enjoyed looking at it, and I thank Manabu Someya for producing it.

Please also see a special gallery with more images from Someya’s book.

Signed copies of Nirai are available for purchase in the Japan Exposures Bookstore.